Q&A: Transportation expert David Zipper talks ride hailing, new mobility, and more!

Q&A: Transportation expert David Zipper talks ride hailing, new mobility, and more!

TransLink New Mobility Forum
David Zipper

TransLink’s second annual New Mobility Forum brought together leaders in government, industry and academia to discuss how we regulate, manage and deliver transportation in Metro Vancouver as we forge ahead into the future.

Transportation expert David Zipper, resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund, was the keynote speaker at the forum. He shared his insights on the future of new mobility and it what it means for Metro Vancouver.

After the event, Andrew McCurran, TransLink’s director of strategic planning and policy, caught up with Zipper to get his unique perspective on new mobility.

Watch the video above or read on for the the interview’s transcript!

Andrew: Why don’t you tell us who you are and how you got into this mobility space?

David: Sure! My name is David Zipper and I am a resident fellow at a think tank called the German Marshall Fund based in Washington and Berlin, where I lead the transit and urban mobility initiatives – looking at urban mobility innovations and opportunities in American cities

I come to transportation through a sort of idiosyncratic route. I actually focused more on economic development first, looking at ways of building the economies in the United States, especially in New York and in Washington, when I was in the mayor’s office there.

And it was then that I started to appreciate that although incentives and corporate attraction were a real way of growing economies. Actually, transportation – particularly high quality of transportation options – was frankly a better economic development approach in my view than throwing money at corporate recruitment.

So, I happened to be in Washington D.C. when bikeshare launched at a time when ridehail emerged and it got me really fired up about the opportunities and, for the last 8 years, I’ve been focused on learning more about it and supporting what I think are some really positive changes globally in new mobility and trying to keep the process moving forward.

Andrew: What do you see as the biggest gamechangers on the horizon right now? What do you think the biggest threats are? And what’s hype and conjecture versus realistic risks?

David: I think what gets me most excited and optimistic about the future of urban transportation is that at long last there is a growing acknowledgement, certainly in big city leaders, but also in the general public that the way we handle street spacing and curb space — it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

People recognize that allocating 40 per cent-plus of cities to parking for vehicles that are just sitting there unused 95 per cent of the time is not really rational or the best way of building communities and cities where we want to live. And as we gradually scale back parking, it opens up so much opportunity for new uses – for pedestrians, for bicyclists, for transit.

And for new mobility modes – I think this whole world of micro mobility modes is incredibly exciting with scooters, electric bikes – who knows what’s going to come next with electric unicycles and other things.

To me, I feel like those new innovations are real. Batteries are getting better, the infrastructure in cities is getting more supportive. Those trips feel safer and are safer. So, I think that’s real. What I think is, frankly, hype beyond the obvious candidates like Hyperloop, which I’m not going to pursue, is autonomous vehicles (AV). I think that people have jumped on the AV bandwagon — at least in terms of personal AV vehicles — and the reality in a dense city with variable weather, you are still a long way away from safely providing trips in an autonomous vehicle. I think we are a long way away from having wide-spread adoption of personal AV vehicles. I don’t think cities are going to focus on that immediately

They do need to focus on micro mobility and inclusion.

Andrew: You’ve had a chance to spend some time in Vancouver. We had a couple of conversations and you gave the keynote yesterday at our January 7th New Mobility Forum. So, with a couple of days of experience in the region, what’s the advice you would give us in Metro Vancouver?

TransLink New Mobility Forum
David Zipper

David: Well, you’ve got a lot of power now because these services aren’t here yet. Whether it’s ride hail or scooter share, so you can negotiate from your position of power you, and the cities within the region on the terms when they come in. So, what I would really encourage the leaders in the region to do is to be very conscious and deliberate about the goals you want to achieve with these new services.

And I think it’s good on that when they will be here. But the question is what do you want them to provide? Do you want ride hail to provide better access late at night for people who are going out for drinks and shouldn’t be driving. If TransLink doesn’t offer much service for those folks going to downtown areas late at night, then providing really good TNC (Transportation Network Companies) drop-off points in nightlife areas makes a lot of sense.

At the same time too, you might say that in more outer-lying parts of the region, where you can’t provide the bus service you otherwise might want to because of lack of density, having TNC partnerships there makes sense as well.

Where you probably don’t need TNCs as much is the downtown cores and in places like Surrey, Vancouver during peak times when the roads are already quite full. Taking steps to mitigate that — perhaps using taxation powers to nudge ride hail towards pool-ride instead of individual rides to me makes a lot of sense.

And then the final last point I would make is to be transparent not just towards what those goals are but also the thresholds you’re using to evaluate the success of these new services as they’re deployed.

Utilization rates for scooter share and bike share I find to be very, very useful in understanding just how popular these services are and whether it makes sense to have more of them on city streets given whatever threshold you may start with. Or if you, frankly, want to scale them back because they just aren’t sticking.

Andrew: Mobility as a Service or Maas is a concept which transit agencies, transportation authorities around the world are grappling with right now. We talked a bit about that yesterday. You facilitated a great panel discussion. What do you think are some of the key issues that we need to grapple with? Where do you think this conversation is landing – where’s this going?

David: There’s a tremendous amount of talk about MaaS. But there’s not much that’s very clear about it. There’s not even a clear definition of what it means.  You hear so many terms for it like the terms “smart cities” for the last few years where everybody has their own interpretation of it. But I think the way to cut through all the hullabaloo around MaaS, in my view, is to focus on user experience and what a transit agency or a city is trying to achieve with user experience around urban mobility that achieves social outcomes for the city at large and improves the individual residents’ transportation experience.

So, in my mind, what that means is having it really easy for a resident of Richmond or Surrey or whatever to be able to go onto their smartphone and see all the various options they could use to get from wherever they are to wherever they want to go. And be able to not just plan a trip but book that trip whether it’s on one mode or multiple modes – public or private.

And ideally, they can actually buy a basket of transportation goods for a given month. Let’s say for 75 dollars a month, that they know they will use for a variety of modes to get them around whether it’s car share, bikeshare, TransLink services, or potentially ridehail as well.

That’s what we’re moving toward, or I think what we should move toward. Nowhere in the world that I know of has actually achieved  that fully. So, for MaaS to be successful, you want to have integrated trip planning and integrated payments for all those modes – public and private – in one place. And ideally, you’d have subscription services available too, so that for 75 dollars a month, you’re able to basket of mobility goods. And you can use that subscription to travel however you want to. No one has really pulled that off yet.

There are some cities that have tried or are trying, exploring it – Singapore, Antwerp, Helsinki is another example, Birmingham, England. But, it’s very early days.  If that’s a vision that TransLink wants to pursue, or thinks it’s worth pursuing, there are steps to get there along the way.

Part of it is building an open trip-planning and open payment information data so that it’s possible to pull off all of this kind of information together into place. For example, right now, you can’t buy a TransLink ticket on another provider – a carshare service or another sort of company like that. Maybe you want to think about making that possible. There are various steps you can take to pull more and more services together to make the entire network more inter-operable.

Just a couple of days ago, I took one of your ferry services to Granville Island and I noticed it wasn’t part of Compass. Okay – that makes sense. But, maybe it should be. Maybe that’s a step that would be positive in the direction toward pursuing MaaS.

Andrew: So, what do you think about the rise of shared mobility options and their capacity to potentially reduce personal single occupant vehicles in a significant way?

Modo carsharing
Modo carsharing

David: I think that alternative modes of transport – and in my mind, I think electric scooters and electric bikes could be shared, but it could also be personally-owned. And ride hail fits into this too. They’re going to be around for the long haul. Because, some of these modes are just fun.  If you’ve tried an electric scooter before, you’ll know what I mean. It’s just fun! Even if you think they make people look dorky on them, which many do so, those services are not gonna go away. But whether they really catch on in a way that allows them to dent the percentage of people who are travelling or driving themselves alone, when they commute, that has a lot to do — not so much with the appeal of these new services — but rather the way we treat parking and the way we treat taxes.

Are we going to start imposing congestion taxes on people who drive? Are we going to start stripping away some of the parking spots that are taking away some of those valuable pieces of property in Downtown Vancouver and in cities across the world? If you start doing that, then that’s actually going to be a little bit of a nudge or potentially more than a little nudge.

For people to say maybe I don’t want to driving myself everywhere. Maybe I wanna find alternative modes of transportation. And, by the way, that could be those private modes we’ve talked about, or it could be public transit. But, we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that regulation and taxation and treatment of parking are not absolutely critical in terms of shaping the decisions of how people travel and also whether or not they want to purchase a private vehicle.

Andrew: Are the rise of private transportation providers and this whole new ecosystem through shared use mobility – do you think that’s a threat to public transit in your view? Or are they complementary?

David: I think it’s both. I think that there are definite opportunities where even a service like ride hail — that strikes fear in the heart of many transit leaders — can be hugely advantageous. It’s very expensive to run a bus late at night with two people on it. And, it’s a bad user experience because you’re having to wait a long time for that bus and it’s probably not picking you up exactly where you are or dropping you off exactly where you wanna be.

Why not have that transit agency — instead of providing that bus that’s really expensive and has to be subsidized in a big way — pay for ride hail or a service like that to move that passenger and give them a better user experience and actually save some money in the transit agency’s operating ledger.

So that’s an opportunity. I think the real threat is — when you think about the enhanced congestion that ride hailing particularly can create in downtown areas — is the slow down of bus speeds that you’re going to see in a place like Vancouver. That’s a huge problem that can drive people away from using the bus.  That’s why I think dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes are really, really important.

Not just here but everywhere. And the last point I’ll make — and perhaps the most obvious one — is, of course, there’s going to some competition with ride hail – when it comes here – and transit. People will recognize that they could take ride hail instead of the bus or instead of SkyTrain.

But that actually could be constructive and helpful to provide a sort of a nudge to improve service. I’ve seen that happen in other cities and transit agencies around the country. So, I don’t think that’s simply saying, “Oh look, there’s another mode that people might choose other than transit” is in itself a good enough reason to be opposed to its arrival. I think on net, it should be a good thing if it’s handled in a confident manner ex-ante.